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The Heart of Honky-Tonk

Buck Owens, left, with co-host Roy Clark on the
Buck Owens, left, with co-host Roy Clark on the "Hee Haw" set in 1986. (By Mark Humphrey -- Associated Press)

By the late '40s, Bakersfield, a booming farm and oil town heavily populated by Texas and Oklahoma transplants, had developed a thriving honky-tonk scene, and Owens moved there in 1950 to try to make a better living.

It was the Bakersfield jukes that shaped his hard-driving sound, which he once described as "like a freight train coming into your living room." To be heard in noisy venues, bands had to play loud and long, with an emphasis on danceable music.

That's when Owens replaced the hollow-body Gibson electric favored by country guitarists with a relatively new solid-body Fender Telecaster that gave him a sharper, tougher, twangier sound. "You played what it took to bring the people in," he explained. "They wanted rhythm, they wanted to dance. . . . That's more or less where the frenetic-type energy comes from in my songs."

At a time when country singers were expected to go to Nashville and sing over tracks laid down by stolid session players and saccharine string sections, Owens insisted on recording on the West Coast with his own band so there would be no difference between the sound of his records and the sound of his shows. Named the Buckaroos by short-term bassist Merle Haggard, they were considered the best little band in country music, in great part because of guitarist, fiddler and high harmony singer Don Rich, whose death at 32, in 1974 in a motorcycle accident, devastated Owens.

By the end of the decade, country music had changed again, or as Owens might have put it, "gone soft" again, and he wanted no part of it.

Thankfully, Yoakam invited Owens to join him onstage at a local county fair in 1987. The next January, they sang "Streets of Bakersfield" on the Country Music Association's 30th-anniversary television show, and the subsequent recording became Owens's first No. 1 single in 16 years.

Unlike many of his peers, Owens didn't focus on the drinking or fighting side of honky-tonk, but on matters of the heart. His longest-running No. 1 hit, "Love's Gonna Live Here," was not about maudlin regret over lost love but insistent affirmation of its return. His greatest ballad, "Together Again," was a joyful celebration.

That song's enduring grace was emphasized when Owens and Emmylou Harris enjoyed a 1979 duet hit with "Play 'Together Again' Again." Owens even revisited "Act Naturally" in 1989 with Ringo Starr, who'd sung it as a Beatle in 1964, a year after Owens's original topped the charts.

Still, even as new audiences got to see Owens not as the former "Hee Haw" star but as a pioneer and master of hard-country and honky-tonk, he never regained the heights he'd known. And Owens seemed quite fine with that, enjoying his status at 60 as a living legend and elder statesman, mentoring a new generation of singers and pickers in uncompromised art.

In 1996, the same year Owens was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he opened Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, a restaurant, nightclub and museum complex on Buck Owens Drive in Bakersfield. Most Friday and Saturday nights, Owens played two shows there.

Yesterday, a Crystal Palace phone recording still listed Buck Owens and His Buckaroos as appearing on the weekend. In Bakersfield, it might be down to memorabilia and collectibles now, but for more than four decades, Buck Owens was a main attraction like no other.

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